top of page
  • Writer's pictureJackie Dallas

September is Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month

September is a month that celebrates many notable awareness causes. One that is often overlooked is Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month. Together, we can pave the way for better prevention, early detection, and support. Let's shed light on gynecological cancer awareness this September. Gynecological cancers affect the female reproductive system, including the cervix, uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, vulva, and vagina. While they may not always receive the same level of attention as more common cancers, such as breast or lung cancer, their impact on the lives of those affected cannot be underestimated. Let's discuss some of the more prevalent cancers that women can face:

Cervical Cancer:

Cervical cancer is a significant health concern worldwide, with both high morbidity and mortality rates without treatment, particularly in regions with limited access to healthcare. While most gynecological cancers affect older women, cervical cancer is most often diagnosed in women aged 35-44. When found in its early stages, cervical cancer has a relatively high survival rate, with a five-year survival rate of around 92%. However, advanced-stage cervical cancer has a lower survival rate.

Prevention efforts are centered on widespread HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccination, regular screenings, and safe sexual practices. Common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, and pain during intercourse. Early diagnosis is crucial and typically involves regular Pap smears or HPV tests, which can detect precancerous changes in the cervix. If cervical cancer is diagnosed, treatment options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these.

Ovarian Cancer:

Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages, due to the absence of effective screening tests and vague symptoms which can make diagnosis challenging. Unfortunately, late-stage diagnosis often results in high morbidity and mortality rates. Early stages of ovarian cancer often present with subtle or nonspecific symptoms, such as bloating, pelvic pain, and changes in bowel habits. Diagnosis typically involves a combination of pelvic examinations, imaging (like ultrasound or CT scans), and blood tests to measure tumor markers like CA-125. The mainstay of treatment is surgery to remove the tumor, often accompanied by chemotherapy.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer include early menstruation age, late menopause, never having had a pregnancy and obesity. 10% of women will also have a family history of ovarian cancer or mutation in the BRCA gene. Frustratingly, ovarian cancer is challenging to prevent as its exact cause remains unclear, but certain strategies include oral contraceptives and risk-reducing surgeries for high-risk individuals. Survival rates vary depending on the stage at diagnosis, with a five-year survival rate for advanced-stage ovarian cancer being around 30%.

Uterine Cancer:

Uterine cancer, which primarily affects postmenopausal women, can have genetic

and hormonal risk factors. The. most common type, endometrial cancer, represents a significant health concern, though it generally has a better prognosis compared to other gynecological cancers. Common signs and symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, and changes in urinary or bowel habits. Diagnosis typically involves a combination of pelvic examinations, imaging (such as ultrasound or CT scans), and endometrial biopsy. The primary treatment for uterine cancer is surgery to remove the uterus (hysterectomy) often followed by radiation therapy or chemotherapy as needed.

Risk factors such as obesity and hormone imbalances may contribute to the development of uterine cancer, and lifestyle modifications, hormone therapy, or genetic counseling for high-risk individuals can aid in prevention. When diagnosed in its early stages, uterine cancer has a relatively favorable survival rate, with a five-year survival rate exceeding 90%.

Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers:

Vulvar and vaginal cancers, though relatively rare, can have significant morbidity and mortality, particularly when diagnosed at advanced stages. Signs and symptoms may include itching, pain, abnormal bleeding, or changes in the skin color of the vulva or vaginal area. Diagnosis typically involves a pelvic examination, biopsies, and imaging tests like CT scans or MRI. Treatment options vary based on the stage and type of cancer and may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these.

Preventative efforts involve regular gynecological check-ups, HPV vaccination to reduce the risk of certain types of these cancers, and practicing safe sex. Survival rates for vulvar and vaginal cancers vary depending on the stage at diagnosis. When detected and treated early, the five-year survival rate can range from 60% to 80%.

The Importance of Awareness, Early Detection and Preventative Efforts Understanding gynecological cancers can help in early detection and better outcomes. Furthermore, knowing the symptoms and risk factors associated with these cancers can empower women to seek medical attention promptly.

Part of proper screening, includes regular visits to an obgyn for a pelvic exam and

pap smear, which involves a painless, though may be mildly uncomfortable, collection of cells by gentle scraping of the cervix. Those cells are then analyzed to see if they look like healthy normal cells or if they show any precancerous changes. Your doctor will also likely run a test for common strains of HPV that are most likely to cause cancer.

Over the years, the official recommendations on pap smears have changed, but as of 2023, the guidelines are as follows:

  • Women age 21 to 29 should have a Pap test alone every 3 years. HPV testing alone can be considered for women who are 25 to 29, but Pap tests are preferred.

  • Women age 30 to 65 have three options for testing. They can have both a Pap test and an HPV test every 5 years. They can have a Pap test alone every 3 years. Or they can have HPV testing alone every 5 years.

  • After age 65, you can stop having cervical cancer screenings if you have never had abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer, and you’ve had two or three negative screening tests in a row, depending on the type of test.

However, your doctor may recommend more frequent checkups and testings depending on your test results and history, such as if you have had cancerous cervical cells in the past, are HIV positive, have a weakened immune system or were exposed before birth to diethylstilbestrol (DES, a hormone given to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971). And if you've had a hysterectomy, you should discuss with your doctor as you may still need to have regular screenings.

Fun Fact: After the pap smear was standardized in the 1940s by Dr. Papanicolaou, women have seen the mortality rates from cervical cancer decline by over 70% due to early detection.

It is important to note that although the pap smear is no longer recommended annually, it is still advised to make yearly visits to your obgyn for an opportunity to talk about any number of common concerns, such as problems with sex or birth control, pelvic pain, abnormal bleeding or discharge, STIs, as well as conducting breast and pelvic exams.

Another risk reducing recommendation is the HPV Vaccine. The human papillomavirus is the most common STI. It is estimated that 80% of all sexually active adults will contract at least one strain of HPV in their lifetime. There are over 100 different strains of HPV, some of which are responsible for genital warts, and other notable high risk strains which are strongly linked to cervical, anal and oropharyngeal cancers. In many instances, HPV infections may be transient and a person's immune system may be able to effectively clear the virus in a few years. However, in other cases, the infection can become persistent, resulting in cancer and other health complications. The HPV vaccine does not protect against all strains, but offers a significantly reduces the risk of infection from some of the more common strains.

Invented in 2006, the HPV Vaccine is a two or three injection series that is given at age 11 or 12, before likely having been already exposed to HPV. It is also recommended to get the vaccine up to age 26 if not fully vaccinated when younger. The guidelines do not recommend the vaccine after age 26, as most people will have already been exposed to HPV by then. The HPV vaccine only works to prevent new infections, but have no effect on existing infections or diseases.

While it is true that HPV is most commonly asymptomatic in males, it is recommended that they also be vaccinated to protect against strains that can cause non-gynecologic cancers which they are still susceptible to, as well as mitigate the transference of HPV to other partners once sexually active.

Supporting Those Affected by Gynecological Cancers

It is estimated that 100,000 women get diagnosed with a gynecological cancer each year in the US. Supporting those affected include not only access to medical care but also emotional and psychological support for both patients and their families.

It is also helpful to take actions to spread awareness of gynecological cancers, their risk factors, signs and symptoms, as well as urge friends and family to get routine screenings and emphasize the importance of early detection.

Impactful Gynecological Organizations and Foundations to Support

  • Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC) - a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing research, education and awareness of gynecologic cancers, risks, prevention, early detection and optimal treatment.

  • Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance - The world's leading ovarian cancer organization dedicated to curing ovarian cancer while improving treatments by advancing innovative science, promoting preventive measures, and advocating, educating and supporting anyone affected by gynecologic cancers to ensure the best possible care and outcomes.

  • American Cancer Society - Mission to improve the lives of people with cancer and their families through advocacy, research, and patient support, to ensure everyone has an opportunity to prevent, detect, treat, and survive cancer.

In September, as we highlight Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month, it's a chance to remember how understanding, compassion, and advocacy matter. By talking about these less-discussed cancers, we're working towards a future where early detection and support are for everyone. Let's be aware, break down stigmas, and make a difference in the lives of those facing gynecological cancers.



bottom of page